What Can Sri Lanka and Africa Learn from Each Other?


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The title of this post may seem a bit odd. What can an island of 20 million people and a diverse continent of 47 countries have in common? The answer: Both were thought to have initial advantages that would generate rapid economic growth; instead, they have fallen painfully short of expectations. 

In the African case, the advantage was its rich natural resources such as oil and minerals. But instead of exploiting this potential ticket to poverty reduction, Africa’s natural resource producers have seen their per capita income grow more slowly than that of non-mineral countries. Nigeria is a case in point. Its per capita income in 1970 (before the oil boom) was $913; today it is $454.

Sri Lanka’s asset is its human resources—reflected in the high levels of literacy and low levels of child and maternal mortality that have stood out since the 1960s. Like Africa, Sri Lanka has been an exercise in disappointment. In fact, there is no other country with a lower infant mortality rate and a lower per capita income than Sri Lanka.

The question for Africa and Sri Lanka is therefore how to manage the enormous assets they posses in a way that translates into sustainable wellbeing for their populations?

With both natural resources and human resources, there are no technical solutions to their management. Rather, the challenge is to make sure that there is adequate accountability by citizens of politicians so that the decisions that affect the use of these assets are in the citizens’ interest.

Currently, Sri Lanka and Africa are facing significant opportunities for sustained economic growth and poverty reduction—Sri Lanka because of the end of the conflict, Africa because of its recent growth turnaround.

Both have a history of underachieving relative to their potential, so success is not guaranteed. But a comparison of the two histories reveals what needs to be done—strengthen accountability of politicians by citizens—so that these two places can seize this historic opportunity and embark on a period of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction.

For more information, click here to read the paper.


Shanta Devarajan

Senior Director, DEC and Acting World Bank Group Chief Economist

Join the Conversation

Bob Spencer
November 24, 2009

Your article helps me, or causes me, to sort out the issue of how to introduce the notion that expansion of economic opportunities in place of exploitation is not only a good thing but it is feasible.

If economic expansion is really possible, then a broad base of human resources needs to increase their skills and the people at the top of a top-down political culture become more dependent upon them. That is a major shift in the perception of how things work. Too often, a wide base of the public perceive and believe that they have their place in life and the elites have theirs. All of this has to turn around so that the top people are as dependent upon the bottom. Along with their production skills assets, if the broad base can add the social assets of minimal social organization and an ability to articulate their needs, then expansion can move into a collaborative stage where all social tiers participate at an expansive level and both receive the benefits.

Do you think that an outside facilitator or agitator is necessary to introduce the concept that expansion is feasible? This is duifficult. I am glad that you shared your paper.

Bob Spencer

Dudley D W Jayasekera
November 30, 2009

We continue to miss out opportunities all the time seem to get drawn for conflicts easier.
Are these conflicts engineered with precision to divert attention of the general public form more important issues ?
Have the successive governments been mindful of future in the long term ?
Politicians continue to thrive and amass personal wealth out of public funds ?
Private sector has miserably failed in their up-keep to commonly accepted norms ?
Private sector is more bent on fleecing the unsuspecting general public / consumer than give them their money's worth in turn ?
CSR is making a bigger noise and a publicity tool outside its litereral objectives ?
Public would have been made happier and served better if the noise makers in CSR adhered to better business ethics and better governance in their respective outfits ?
Will more effective independent regulatory bodies bring about better 'checks and balances' ?
Is there any or enough transparency when transacting public funds ?

Dudley D W Jayasekera REGENT LODGE - 172 Riverdale Road – KANDY – SRI LANKA

December 01, 2009

Resources, literacy or infant mortality on their own cannot be adjudged to be key indicators of current or future per capita income. The fact is that these are among a number performance measures signifiying a nation's wealth. Africa's issues with the rapid spread of AIDS, low levels of education and despot rule are likely to keep that continent at the bottom of per capita income measures irrespective of their wealth of natural resources. More accountability from politicians will help, but accountability is also needed from larger, more developed countries such as China who have already begun to exploit these African resources without regard to making an equitable contribution to African economies for the minerals they import. Similarly, we need Sri Lankan politicians to be less greedy, less corrupt and more accountable, but the general populace must also strive to make a contribution to the land them gave a high level of free education without looking to flee the country for greener pastures in developed nations. Countries such as Australia have benefited significantly from Sri Lanka's brain drain, while our motherland has received nothing in return. Should developed nations make a payment to the Sri Lankan government for every skilled migrant they import from Lanka's shores? Something to ponder....